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Commentary-The Struggle for Mastery of the Pacific

TOKYO – On May 1, the Shanghai Expo began, illuminated by a huge fireworks display. The festivities will continue until the end of October. In 1970, Japan celebrated its own tremendous postwar economic growth with the Osaka Expo, as well as by launching the Bullet Train. The world watches and wonders whether China will follow Japan's path and emerge as a fully modern yet peacefully inclined country.There are reasons to doubt that it will. China's willingness to demonstrate its new might is not confined to land; on the contrary, China's maritime ambitions have no end in sight.

Indeed, when Admiral Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the United States Navy's Pacific fleet, visited China in 2007, a high-ranking Chinese naval officer proposed that the two countries demarcate a “zone of control” at Hawaii, defining the limits of US naval influence and the beginning of China's maritime sphere. The Chinese navy, it is now believed, is trying to achieve that very aim. China's ambition is marked by muscle flexing. On April 8, a helicopter from a Chinese naval vessel operating in international waters south of Okinawa came within 90 meters of a Japanese Self-Defense Force escort ship – so close that a gun-wielding Chinese soldier was clearly visible. Japan protested, describing the incident as an “extremely dangerous act.”

As if demonstrating its intention to ignore the protest, on April 21 Chinese Navy vessels sailed northward, between Okinawa and the Miyako islands, and conducted a large-scale exercise. Once again, a Chinese military helicopter circled a Japanese escort ship. Although reconnaissance flights by Russia's Air Force frequently occur in Japan's northern skies, both countries understand the need for caution in their actions. The Japanese and Chinese militaries, however, do not have sufficient ties to create confidence that caution will prevail. To prevent an accident from inciting a volatile incident, it is imperative that the two sides develop a deeper bilateral military dialogue.

Nothing of the sort is happening. Moreover, Japan's government has encouraged Chinese regional ambitions by embracing an anti-American attitude similar to the administration of South Korea's former president, Roh Moo-hyun. By promising in last summer's election campaign to expel America's bases on Okinawa, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama put himself in a bind. It now appears that he wants to backtrack on his promise, but massive protests are inhibiting him from doing so.

Sensing a widening gulf between Japan and the US, the Chinese Navy is demonstrating its growing might in the seas around Japan – and asserting its aspiration to replace the US as the Pacific's dominant naval power. There is a precedent for this: when the US closed Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, the Chinese military immediately stepped up its activity around the Spratly Islands, which are recognized as Filipino territory but which China is claiming vehemently.,China's struggle for mastery in the Pacific is now raising fears in Japan. South of Okinawa is Yonaguni Island, with a population of just 1,800 and visible from Taiwan on a clear day. Within Japan, there is growing controversy over the Hatoyama government's push for a law that would allow particular foreign residents on the island to vote in local elections. The inhabitants of Yonaguni strongly oppose the law, not because they are exclusionary, but because they believe that they are protecting a sensitive border.

Because a mere 137 votes can get a town council member elected, a large number of foreigners with a particular interest in moving onto the island could nominate a winning candidate. The worry is that such a council could legislate in ways “friendly” to neighboring states, which might compromise Japan's national security dramatically. Even Hatoyama's defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, who had been prone to naïve remarks on the issue, appears to have come to his senses. He is now calling for the construction of a Self-Defense Force base on Yonaguni. But the situation on the island demonstrates anew that China is prepared to take advantage of every misstep that the gaffe-prone Hatoyama government makes.

And it is not just the waters near Japan that should concern Hatoyama, for the Chinese Navy is not only eyeing the Pacific, but also steering toward South Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and Africa. Indeed, the growing contest between India and China is not only military in nature, but also concerns the acquisition of natural resources. By controlling the sea lanes, China hopes to gain leverage over India's capacity for economic growth.

Chinese military expansion has seen double-digit annual growth for 22 years. Although Chinese officials say that the 2010 military budget has been restrained, and will grow by only 7.5%, China's military expenditures already exceeds those of Japan by 15%. In fact, China probably limited the increase this year after recognizing that the international community is becoming alarmed by the steep upward trajectory of its military build-up.
But there remain doubts about the true level of China's military spending, owing to a pronounced lack of transparency in the budget process. It remains unclear, for example, whether the research and development costs for an aircraft carrier are included.

History has repeatedly demonstrated that such ambiguity, particular if practiced by a rising power, can spark an arms race. The secretive naval build-up of Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany, for example, helped incite World War I. US President John F. Kennedy's belief that a “missile gap” existed in the Soviet Union's favor inspired the production of multiple-warhead nuclear missiles, accelerating the nuclear arms race at the height of the Cold War. China claims that it is entitled to play a role in setting the rules that govern the international system. China should, of course, play such a part. But until China acts with greater sincerity and transparency in eliminating the international community's concerns, it runs the risk that its neighbors will not only suspect its efforts in the international arena, but take active countermeasures to defend their security.

Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese Minister of Defense and National Security Advisor, is a member of the opposition in Japan's Diet. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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